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On The Scene

Arafat: The climax of Hajj

By CNN's Hala Gorani

CNN began coverage Sunday of the Hajj. CNN follows pilgrims on a journey millions of Muslims say will be one of the defining moments of their lives. CNN's Hala Gorani has compiled this diary for CNN.com.

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Muslim pilgrims give praise and join processions as they celebrate their visit to Arafat.

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ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- It's the climax of Hajj: Pilgrims flock to the plains of Arafat.

There, they reconnect with God and ask forgiveness for their sins.

A sea of pilgrims, as far as the eye can sea, stretches away from Arafat to Muzdalifah.

For some, the emotion of standing at the site where tradition says the prophet Mohammad gave his last sermon is overwhelming: a Somali woman weeps as she reads prayers.

For the CNN crew, concerns are much more down to earth.

Perched atop a tower overlooking Arafat and getting a live broadcast signal out through a videophone presents technological challenges that would test anybody's patience.

Because millions of people use mobile phones at the same time, the mobile network completely crashes.

Even satellite signals mysteriously come and go, so it takes two portable satellite phones and great persistence to bring our live reports to viewers.

I wonder as I look down on the crowds how ambulances would respond to emergencies during Hajj.

The crowds are so dense that vehicles crawl at a snail's pace amid the tight human mass.

I ask the president of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, Saleh Altwaijri, how someone suffering from a heart attack, for instance, would get help.

He says there are pedestrian medical teams posted every few hundred meters.

That, he says, eliminated the need for ambulances (there are 350 of them in and around Mecca for Hajj) to drive to the site of every medical emergency.

Also at Arafat, I speak with a 26-year old Imam based in San Jose, California.

Ilyas Anwar looks like the portrait of a conservative, bearded Muslim, but sounds like any young 20-something American.

I ask him who he'd voted for in the last presidential election. He laughs and says he voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but had abstained in 2004.

A majority of Muslim Americans voted for Bush the first time he ran for president. That percentage went down four years later.

Many Muslim Americans tell me they feel the Bush administration's policies, including the Patriot Act, don't reflect their beliefs anymore.

On the way out of the tent city of Arafat, we face crowd chaos of epic proportions.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims walking from Arafat to Muzdalifah -- where they pick up pebbles for the stoning of the devil ritual -- painfully and reluctant part to let our car through.

Consequently, our 10 km drive to Mecca takes three hours.

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